A Curfew in Spring

Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, is under tight curfew. Tight does not qualify curfew. It qualifies Srinagar. Srinagar is tight under curfew. The city has stopped breathing. It is an enforced exercise that the Valley undergoes regularly for the sake of law and order. On the deserted streets of Srinagar, Indian Army men stand in army issued jackets nursing rifles under the fresh green leaves of the chinar. Occasionally a milk man cycles by. Sometimes, he is stopped and turned back. Sometimes he is allowed to pass, after an identity check.
When the government finally decides to lift the tightness, the people will emerge from their houses and search the markets for everything they have been denied all this while – medicines, milk, flour etc. All this before the second round of scourge begins and confines the people into their homes again.
In the frightening unsafe quiet of the curfew, spring has quietly arrived in the gardens of Kashmir. Of course, without the gardeners there is not much it could do. The snow has melted away and the grass is slowly turning green. The sky, however, is alternating between blue and red. An occasional shower of both hues keeps the memories alive. The memories of Kashmir!
The faint smell of new flowers hasn’t been noticed. People are still to get over the pungent smells of pepper canisters. Pepper gas canisters are a new favourite of the paramilitary. The recipe has been perfected to serve the right amounts of law and the correct potions of order in the inhalers. Apparently, over doses have some side effects. An old woman, who wasn’t used to it, died. (Alleged cause of death, of course.)  A middle aged man with a balding head opened the door to his house to look on the street. He saw three army men standing outside his house with batons and thick glass shields. They wore pads like cricketers and bullet proof vests. He shut the gate and sighed. A scared photo journalist captured the moment and drove away. This is the usual series in curfews if at all media men are allowed to wander on the streets.
At different knots in the city people gathered to shout angry slogans. At various places groups of young men collected to pelt stones at the armed paramilitary forces. They ran hither and thither, fired pepper cans, bullets and hid behind their armoured vehicles. Days like these are rare, when no one is killed in such clashes. However, by evening the news of casualties were unleashed upon us. A man injured here, a boy assaulted there. So many cars damaged, so many policemen injured. People now read these reports with the discomforting air of a terminally ill person reading his medical reports. It’s a relief that something faintly positive comes up. Dozens have been injured in the past week of curfew.
The mildly warm afternoon sun lulls the branches of the apricot trees where new buds are only yet germinating. The vines are turning green on caged bricks of the wall, wondering if it is the right time to break into flowers, or shall they wait for a more opportune time. The breeze treads cautiously over the dangerous terrain. Carrying too much perfume in such times could be unholy. The zephyr understands that. It loads itself with the laments of the weeping silent. Some those who cry out loud, others that obscure the pain.

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Where Fairies Reign Supreme

I discovered that my friend was no good for walking. That was odd. I always thought college kids were good at outdoors stuff. 
It was on my insistence that we walked up to Pari Mahal from Cheshma Shahi. On the winding road that leads up to the fort, recently opened for tourists, it is easy to forget the city you leave below. Except the occasionally passing cars (and in our case, a group of guys listening to Himesh Reshammiya) there is no sound on the slopes, except for the birds twittering in the bushes. The bushes, on their part, were pink and green owing to the season. The almond blooms and narcissus. The fabled fairies had perhaps descended from their thrown open castle, and were now playing in the fields. Holding their skirt hems up, on tiptoes. Lest noise, would let their secrets out. On the Zabarwan, where they reigned supreme. Hiding their honour from the eyes of mortals. They talked to each other in slight whispers, which you could hear being carried in the wind. By dusk, they would have disappeared, and left the woods look lurking. Fearful. Where bears and army men patrolled. I dare say, detested.

The fort itself presented a different story. All forts do. It’s hard to say what the reason was. The overcast skies or the barren grounds or may be the dying Dal lake visible from the top, but Pari Mahal whispered a sad story. It spoke of a lost empire. A prince, who had fallen from grace. And escaped, but couldn’t escape humiliation. Its face carried the strife it had been a part of. Or rather witnessed, because Pari Mahal for long could only be seen from the Boulevard as entry to commoners was denied.  It somehow narrated a more grand, more recent tale of Kashmir. The one we know by heart.

The walls of the castle-fort were blinded. No light peered in. The inmates were isolated and alone. Like caged birds. Scared, perhaps. But not hopeless for sure.  From their fortress they were free to indulge in the best the nature had to offer. It’s seldom a privilege to the caged.

But Time seems to have made a deep impact on the scarred face of Pari Mahal. As an old widow who had nothing more to say, so she chose to stay quiet and be oblivious. And witness, the passage of time and her peril. The unkempt gardens of her fort do her no justice. Like the wedding cake of Miss Havisham, a fine reminder of the time that was – or could have been. 
It is hard to imagine what Pari Mahal would have looked like at the time it was constructed. Or more important still, how the Dal would have looked from its terraces. I imagine the lake would have looked an unending mass of clear water, in which the surrounding hills here deeply etched. In which the blue of the skies found ample space. Sadly, viewing from the top, the Dal appears much like the fort itself. Ravaged by time and  men. From the terraces of the fort, you can see a helipad, some army establishments and the golf course. Almond trees scattered here and there. Some greenery splashed across the canvas, and if you look intently the Boulevard appears as a thin ribbon of grey. All things together, the landscape looks like a broken symphony – that started off in a celebration and a few bad notes later became a wail, and then died.
As it started to get dark, some bright lights appeared in the distance. That was the newly opened Vivanta. You can see that in the photograph below, in the right corner. A few more, and the dim streetlights around the Dal were on.

And before it got too dark, we walked back to the car and the man at the car parking who didn’t issue a receipt for the parking money.


The howling started suddenly. That was the evening of 19thMarch. The light bulbs zipped and were out. As is the norm. Electricity is the first martyr of any weather change in Kashmir.
As at that time it didn’t seem that serious, I hoped the electricity would be restored by 11am next morning. But morning was a long way off. It was the night that was exciting. And since I spent most of it awake, I can tell you something about it.
The wind hadn’t risen till late in the evening. After that it was all about the wind, and nothing else. In our beds we heard the leaves rustle violently in giant gusts of wind. The branches creak and crack. The unsettled birds chirping in displeasure. The gravel being rubbed against the window panes.
 The bucket being banged against the walls.

Next morning wore the look of a violated village. Leaves, twigs and tree branches lay strewn all over. A newspaper had flown in from somewhere. A polythene bag was hanging. A piece of cloth.

By afternoon, someone who had predicted that the wind will stop by 1pm of that day was being told that the wind kept no clocks. The people kept away from the streets. The wind hadn’t died down. People were afraid of falling objects, tree branches and roofs.
The electricity hadn’t still been restored. The wind was still howling. A tree collapsed in the neighbourhood. It must have made a creaking sound when it fell, but of course, no one heard. The wind wouldn’t let us. Nothing rose over the gale. People were already worrying about this newly born qahar.
By evening of next day (March 20th), the wind had reduced in its intensity. But there was no electricity, and with it getting darker no hope of it either. The wind reminded of the snow. Only that this time the Highway was open and we weren’t wrapped up in blankets.

In some other parts of Kashmir the wind blew down houses. It uprooted trees, and created a blank. Those who saw the structures being torn down will tell you that’s what winds do. The blow things out of order. Some people will now be mending their walls. Re-constructing their little forts, their seats of assumed power, to keep any future winds out. But that won’t happen. Nothing stops a pack of cards from crumbling, except, of course, Time. Even the powerful take some time to realise their power.

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Theories of Sweet Nothingness – Written for 14th February

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.”
~Alfred Lord Tennyson

Valentine’s Day is pointless. We all agree. Its not religious. Not from our culture. Not from anyone’s culture. But is still, may I say it, the day of love. Note that – day of love. Not of lovers. Technically, there is a difference. But isn’t love too blind for the study of technique? 

Well, you can’t be serious on Valentine’s Day or about it. Until, of course, you are a businessman (or his daughter).

Until this winter I had never been to the Botanical Gardens in Srinagar. It is apparently a very popular place to go, especially if you are in love. Only in love, some people may protest, but that would be an exaggeration. You need a ten rupees ticket to enter the garden, not a valentine. I had gone there with a friend (not a valentine) when he couldn’t drive all the way up to Pari Mahal because of the snow, and we decided to take a detour to the Botanical gardens instead.

Since everything was covered in snow, it seemed even more beautiful than, I presumed, it would usually look in summer months. The walkways were all covered with trampled snow, and foot marks.  Lot of them going in one direction only, and not coming back.

Since Botanical garden is a showcase of botanical wonders of Kashmir, it is not much of a sight when the flora is gone post-autumn. The trees were all barren except the evergreens and the firs. The beds were covered with snow, and hard to locate. We trampled many, I am sure, but no one could tell. The snow covered them all.

(Note the S and A)

Apart from us there was only one group in the park. They were three, I guess, two women and one man. At one point we heard one of the women shout, “Suno gaaon waalo!” (“Hear O villagers!”). Apart from that there was not a soul. (Except the bored men in the ticketing booth!)

Come spring and the Botanical Gardens are abuzz with star crossed lovers sitting behind hedges and trees, idling their time away. Mostly college and university students who are, in most cases, supposed to be attending classes. “Whisper sweet nothings in my ear, O Beloved.” Infatuated teens who are basically just fooling themselves into believing the love that doesn’t exist. Moving from tree to tree, and hedge to hedge – finding all of them occupied with love birds which came in early to roost, the beloveds take a walk further up towards the hill until they come right up to the boundary wall. There they find solace, away from the noise of parking cars, and from the sights of other lovers, they are free to whisper as many nothings as they wish – or deliver a lecture on the theories of nothingness, if they please.

The lovers’ games are one such sight. The beloved never looks into her lover’s eyes. Or into the eyes of anyone else.  This love is just too much ridden with guilt and shame. She will cover her head, hair and face in hijab when in public, but when alone she will let her hair down for him. (Not that he knows what to do with it.) On roads they will walk together, but a few feet apart. Modestly, pretentiously. In buses they will sit together, one seat apart, and communicate in loud whispers with heads bent.

Overlooking the garden are the many small hutments of the tourism departments. Till recently these were given out to top-notch bureaucrats for their official residences. The scenes the local varieties of Romeo and Juliet play are visible from such huts. I remember a conversation I once had with the wife of one such top-notch bureaucrat. She was giggling within herself while narrating the scenes of lovers in the garden. Like a TV serial. Take a cup of tea, sit back, and watch the daily matinee. Mrs. Bureaucrats obviously don’t have much work to do.

In bigger cities – it would perhaps be better to say in newer (not necessarily modern) cities – on Valentine’s Day, Love is spilled across the streets.Inflated in heart shaped balloons. Heart shaped key chains and car hangings. Heart shaped hairpins. Anything that can be heart-shaped and still be saleable.  And very attractive, very interesting heart-shaped cakes.

Obviously, this has repercussions. Kashmir’s women in black, Dukhtaraan-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith) are famous for their protests against this day and roughing up a good number of girls.

But St. Valentine’s day is losing its reverence slowly. In the Islamic world only, though.  In Uzbekistan Valentine’s Day was banned this year, and instead, a day to celebrate the birth of Mughal Emperor Babur was put in place by the state. In Iran, the people were warned against celebrating this day. Saudi Arab is obviously against the day. To me, personally, the day never held much significance. It never defined romance or love, or anything relevant. Somehow Valentine’s Day never brings up images of love as we know them from epics and literature. Juliet and her Romeo. Laila’s Majnu. In fact, it never brings up any idea except pink teddy bears and Archies cards. 

So what is this thing called love? What is the obsession with 14th February, anyway? And the days preceding it – Rose Day, Promise Day, Teddy Day? What-not-day Day?  If someone were to ask me what heart I would take, it would be this  – a heart of foam on coffee – taken with my friend, the one  from the Botanical Garden, of course.

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Berries not to be eaten

Well, I did what I wanted. An evening walk on the Shankaracharya Hill. For that I had to risk being mauled by the bear which is rumoured to be roaming on the hillside these days. But I did go finally.

I did not take the road uphill – the Boulevard side. It takes about an hour to climb up from  that side, on good days that is. On days like these – cold, and dim, it may take even longer. So, going the nostalgic way, I went from the side we used to climb it when we went with our school. The United Nations side. It takes less than an hour to climb to the top, on any day and the descent is, of course, much faster.

The whole hillside was brown. Sand coloured. Save the evergreen trees, there was not a  leaf of greenery anywhere. That was good. It is autumn, after all.

I came by a couple sitting on a rock. I did not photograph them. But for someone who just had to express his love, I couldn’t skip snapping.

Or the men who were secretly gambling on the hillside.

The beautiful little berries which are not to be consumed.

Or the golden sunshine.

The sound of Azaan could be heard all over the hillside. You could feel close to nature.

Even without the reminder.

 I remember, the sky was featureless. Sunny and cloudless.

I had expected the hilltop to be windy, as it used to be in summers. But wasn’t. There was a slight breeze but I was so hot from the uphill climb, that I didn’t feel it cold.

From the top, the whole city was covered in mist. The pictures are not bright, but I couldn’t help it. Its, perhaps the weather, and perhaps, my unpromising photography.

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